Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lessons from Crime & Punishment

Kill her and take her money, so that afterwards with its help you can devote yourself to the service of all mankind and the common cause: what do you think, wouldn't thousands of good deeds make up for one tiny little crime?  For one life, thousands of lives saved from decay and corruption.  One death from hundreds of lives--it's simple arithmetic!  And what does the life of this stupid, consumptive, and wicked old crone mean in the general balance?  No more than the life of a louse, a cockroach, and not even that much...

Rodion Raskolnikov has a lot of time on his hands.  He can no longer financially support himself as a student, so he withdraws into the narrow confines of the single room he rents.  In melancholic isolation, an idea which has long been in the back of his mind takes root and begins to ferment.  Idleness is the devil's workshop, as they say.  

The idea is the crime in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.  Raskolnikov had peddled a few items to a niggardly old woman named Alyona Ivanovna.  He happens to overhear a conversation about the pawnbroker, which confirms thoughts he had already been considering--namely, that Alyona Ivanovna is a miserly louse who doesn't need to live; her money would be put to much better use if she were dead.  The notion becomes more concrete when Raskolnikov happens to overhear another dialogue, which confirms that the the old woman would be alone on such a day at such a time.  

He now has the rationalization and the perfect opportunity.  What were the chances everything would fall into place so conveniently?  Even when Raskolnikov is unable to secure the axe from his landlady's kitchen, the plan is unhindered: he finds another in the caretaker's room.

"When reason fails, the devil helps!" he thought with a strange grin.

So Raskolnikov goes to Alyona Ivanovna's apartment and kills her with the axe.  As he tears through her chest, looking for money, he hears footsteps.  The dead woman's sister, who is mentally disabled, has entered the unlocked apartment and stares aghast at the crime.  Raskolnikov, desperate to protect himself, murders her as well.  He narrowly escapes the crime scene and returns to his apartment, suspected by no one and leaving no incriminating evidence behind.

But though is free, he is not.  Thus the punishment begins.

Dostoyevsky is brilliant at writing in such a way that the reader feels as though he or she is in the mind of Raskolnikov.  Crime and Punishment is a psychological work of literature.  The agony, torment, suffering, and pain Raskolnikov endures from his crime are almost entirely internal.  And you, the reader, feel it by the way Dostoyevsky writes.

I have never murdered anyone, but I am a sinner and I could eerily recall some of the same sentiments and feelings Raskolnikov experienced.  Perhaps you have known them, too--having to pretend around others that everything is perfectly fine when, behind your mask, you know that you have done something terribly wrong.  The heavy weight of guilt bearing upon your conscience.  Walking among others and feeling divided from them, as though an abyss exists between you, because you have been marked by your own evildoing, which has set you apart.  Sin leads to isolation--from God and from the people around you.

"...if the room were now suddenly filled not with policemen but with his foremost friends, even then, he thought, he would be unable to find a single human word for them, so empty had his heart suddenly become.  A dark sensation of tormenting, infinite solitude and estrangement suddenly rose to consciousness in his soul...he sensed clearly, with all the power of sensation, that it was no longer possible for him to address these people in the police station..."  

"It seemed to him that at that moment he had cut himself off, as with scissors, from everyone and everything."

No matter the sin, no matter the crime, those feelings are identical because--in all its variety, sizes, and shapes--the root of the act is evil.  And intrinsic evil is always evil.  There are no mitigating circumstances.

Raskolnikov had tried to rationalize his crime.  He saw himself as a kind of Napoleon, a "super" man, who could "step over" the law.  

I merely suggested that an 'extraordinary' man has the right...that is, not an official right, but his own right, to allow his conscience to...step over certain obstacles, and then only in the event that the fulfillment of his idea--sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind--calls for it...In my opinion, if, as the result of certain combinations, Kepler's or Newton's discoveries could have become known to people in no other way than by sacrificing the lives of one, or ten, or a hundred or more people who were hindering the discovery, or standing as an obstacle in its path, then Newton would have the right, and it would even be his remove those ten or hundred people, in order to make his discoveries known to all mankind.

Could we call this the "right to choose?"

But, of course, this rationalization fails because each person--even a miserly "louse"--has dignity and worth.  

As I was preparing to write this post and was thinking about Crime and Punishment, I couldn't help but notice the interplay between Dostoyevsky's work and the anniversary of Roe V. Wade on January 22.

"The little old crone is nonsense!" he thought, ardently and impetuously.  "The old woman was a mistake perhaps, but she's not the point!  The old woman was merely a sickness...I was in a hurry to step wasn't a human being I killed, it was a principle!"

How eerie it was, to be reading Raskolnikov's thoughts and to consider that in light of the evil that is incredibly similar the rationales and assertions.  But maybe I shouldn't have been surprised.  Assassinating an old woman and having an abortion are two sides of the same coin: murder.  Evil.

"There was something else I wanted to know; something else was nudging my arm.  I wanted to find out then, and find out quickly, whether I was a louse like all the rest, or a man?  Would I be able to step over, or not!  Would I dare to reach down and take, or not?  Am I a trembling creature, or do I have the right..."

"To kill?  The right to kill?" Sonya clasped her hands. 

One of the themes that struck me the most throughout this brilliant work is the value of each and every life: innocent and guilty alike.  What Raskolnikov had done in killing two people was evil--and he suffers for it.  He has his punishment.  And though his thinking is incredibly wrong and he has done something abhorrent...Raskolnikov's life has worth.  

At the start of the novel, I detested Raskolnikov.  I remember saying to my husband, "I have to stay with this character for the whole novel?!"  But somewhere along the way, Dostoyevsky touched my heart.  I could see the good in Raskolnikov, along with the bad, and I wanted the good to win.  I wanted him to be redeemed because, no matter how great the evil he had done, he still had worth.  His life mattered.

There is a fascinating interplay between Raskolnikov and one of the other main characters, Sonya.  Sonya comes from a destitute family and her parents force her into prostitution so she can help support them.  Raskolnikov feels great pity for her and believes that they are similar in the sense that they have both done great wrong.  (Though he fails to see at first the degree of culpability for Sonya, who does her evil with great sorrow and only to help others, is very different compared to his act of selfishness.)  

Sonya's evil is clear to everyone.  She is known by all as a prostitute.  And when Sonya is accused of stealing, everyone save a few is quick to condemn her.  

Yet Raskolnikov sees the beauty and goodness within her. 

"Listen," he [Raskolnikov] added, returning to her [Sonya] after a minute, "I told one offender today that he wasn't worth your little finger...and that I did my sister an honor by sitting her next to you."
"Ah, how could you say that to them!  And she was there?" Sonya cried fearfully.  "To sit with me!  An honor!  But I'm...dishonorable...I'm a great, great sinner!" 

In contrast, Raskolnikov's guilt is hidden.  No one knows of Raskolnikov's Sonya.  Raskolnikov, overcome with the weight of his act, unloads his guilt, anxiety, and suffering on Sonya.  She is the only one who knows that he is the murderer.  Even with this knowledge, Sonya loves him.  She responds with pity and sorrow.  She sees how much he has suffered and how urgently he needed to confess his guilt.

It is this ability to see the inherent value and goodness within each other that allows for Raskolnikov's redemption.

Sometimes evil appears as the "easy" path.  Raskolnikov's plan to murder unfurled itself almost effortless before him.  Sometimes an abortion seems the easiest way.  

Doing what is right almost always requires suffering.  But, the key is that this suffering--contrary to the suffering that accompanies evil--will bring forth new life.  Raskolnikov is a Lazarus figure.  He was dead and, by the epilogue, through the help of Sonya who encourages him to confess, he is brought slowly to life.  He had killed Alyona Ivanovna, but in reality, it was he who had been dead.  

And suffering is a good thing, after all.  Suffer, then...I know belief doesn't come easily--but don't be too clever about it, just give yourself directly to life, without reasoning; don't worry--it will carry you straight to shore and set you on your feet.  What shore?  How do I know?  I only believe that you have much life ahead of you...So, go and do what justice demands.  I know you don't believe it, but, by God, life will carry you.

I read these words as I thought of marchers gathered in Washington D.C. to mark the anniversary of the legalization of abortion.  May the crime of abortion be completely eradicated by the conversion of hearts to the truth that every life--old, young, innocent, guilty--is beautiful.

Give yourself to life.

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